Cohen, Peter (2008), The culture of the ban on cannabis: Is it political laziness and lack of interest that keep this farcical blunder afloat? Paper delivered to the conference on “Cannabis-growing in the Low Countries,” University of Ghent, 3 and 4 December 2007. Amsterdam: CEDRO. English translation by Beverley Jackson.
© Copyright 2007, 2008 Peter Cohen. All rights reserved.

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The culture of the ban on cannabis

Is it political laziness and lack of interest that keep this farcical blunder afloat?*

Peter Cohen

The subject I want to address today is the culture of the ban on cannabis. My main aim is not so much to explore how this culture came about as to explore the reasons for its continued existence. The ban, created long ago as a side issue during consultations about opium in the League of Nations in the 1920s, has endured over the years, through all the various upturns and downturns in culture or the economy.

My original plan was to give you a detailed account of those old deliberations in Geneva. But later I decided that they no longer matter. What does matter is that the ban is still in place and it is fair to assume that it achieves certain goals. So I shall make an effort to define these goals.
My primary aim is not to answer questions relating to the supposed dangers attached to the use of cannabis. Clearly, these dangers may not be the same in Greece as they are in Sweden or Belgium, and they may have changed in a variety of ways within specific countries or political cultures between 1936 and 2007. I shall return to the alleged dangers of cannabis in a moment, and report what some of the researchers I have consulted in Sweden, France and the UK have told me about how these dangers are defined in their own countries.

But as I have just said, describing these dangers and refuting them is not my main aim today. What I want to do here is to give a general description of the primary function of the ban on cannabis, regardless of geographical area, which is ostensibly justified by invoking a version of the dangers that is in fashion at a particular time.

Let me start by explaining that I am using the phrase “the culture of the ban on cannabis” to refer to a cluster of stories about the evils of cannabis, which are assumed to be true, which are not allowed to be tested seriously to check their validity, which are passed on  and repeated within the various political systems and structures that we have in the world, and which culminate everywhere in some form of active enforcement of the ban on cannabis.

In this process, stories are mixed together in all sorts of ways, depending on complex historical developments in the various political systems. Tim Boekhout van Solinge’s dissertation, “Dealing with drugs in Europe” demonstrated this convincingly for Sweden, France and the Netherlands.

Jerome Himmelstein has made another fascinating observation regarding the nature of these stories about the dangers of cannabis. In his well-known article, “From killer-weed to drop-out drug,” he describes the fairly short period during which the cannabis ban has been in place in the United States, and discusses the arguments used to justify it. While in the early years of the ban, the 1930s, Americans blamed cannabis for causing violence, rape and sexual perversion, in the 1960s it was defined as one of the foundations of the cultural rebellion of that era. In that era it was identified as the primary cause of “dropping out,” the lack of enthusiasm for America's dominant culture of consumption. In other words, Himmelstein shows that within the space of a few decades, the scientific and social reasons for the ban, as invoked in the United States, have changed dramatically.1 To me these changes are interesting, because of the way in which they relate to my subject here today, the survival of the culture of the ban.

I hope to convince you that the only thing that is relevant to the ban on cannabis is the ban itself and its survival, rather than the stories that are told about cannabis in a particular period of time. Why the ban was first imposed, and who benefits from it – and how – are of course significant questions, and interesting things to know. In a moment, for instance, I will show how the New York Police Department benefits from it. But the main point I want to make today is that the ban on cannabis has a certain status that shields it from rational and functional evaluation. The ban on cannabis has transcended the bounds of reason, and fulfils spiritual needs of a different nature than those for which it was created. That is why I decided that it was important to present this paper here, at an academic conference. There is a fair chance that I may meet people here who believe that sound research on the consumption and production of cannabis could conceivably influence the way in which the cannabis ban is retained, modified or perhaps even withdrawn! I hope that my words will explode that illusion, by showing that the ban on cannabis has acquired a sacred significance that places it beyond the pale of what we call scientific discourse. My use of the word “sacred” derives from the Dutch word sacraal as used by the anthropologist Jojada Verrips, whose work displays a certain fascination with the sacred origin of ritual murders in the early twentieth-century Netherlands. The need to commit these murders was experienced as a divine commandment; the murders were believed to purge the perpetrators, to liberate them from forms of defilement that were first transferred to the victims. According to Verrips, not only people but plants too may be victims! 2 So my story is about the sacred nature of the ban on cannabis, its link to “purging” and the faith in this process, which removes it from the realm of ordinary debate about policy, or about scientific or economic issues. But let me first review some of the more banal aspects of the ban.

The example I promised to give you a moment ago about the organizations that benefit from the culture of the ban on cannabis comes from Harry Levine’s current research on cannabis arrests in New York City. 3 He maintains that the driving force behind the arrests of large and ever-increasing numbers of people for the possession of cannabis in New York City is not the actual use of cannabis or any possible increase in that use. The driving force is the local police department. Levine concludes from the countless interviews he has conducted that there are certain advantages attached to these arrests. I shall mention three of them.

  1. It is a great boost to production figures. The police needs these high figures because of its management style, in which “production” statistics are required.
  2. It provides police officers with opportunities for much-needed overtime, involving work that is relatively easy and free of danger.
  3. Arresting, making official reports on, placing in police custody, trying, fining and releasing over thirty thousand cannabis users a year – not to mention chasing up their fines – keeps a substantial number of police officers occupied, officers who can easily be deployed elsewhere if the need arises. Let me put it like this: it keeps a large force of officers on stand-by without leaving them to twiddle their thumbs without yielding any measurable “production.” 4

I give this example to show that agencies involved in implementing the ban may derive significant advantages from it; it fulfils an important function. In addition, a major industry has grown up around the enforced treatment of cannabis users, not only in the United States. But this does not explain why these agencies can derive such enormous benefits from the ban without attracting the slightest criticism from politicians, and without being subjected to any checks. The explanation lies in the culture of the ban itself, of which the benefits listed above are merely a consequence.

Stories in Sweden, France and Britain

While preparing this paper, I asked five European researchers to answer the question of why the use of cannabis was prohibited in their country according to the most important agencies of their national enforcement systems. All five responded. The first Swedish respondent said that the ban was thought necessary because cannabis was a stepping-stone to other drugs, because it fostered apathy, and because it could cause schizophrenia. The second Swede said that cannabis was a stepping-stone to other drugs, that it caused dependency, and that it induced all sorts of psychoses.

One of the British researchers answered much more briefly. He said that it was universally believed that cannabis could cause madness, especially because of the popularity of the current strong species of marijuana. None of these researchers asserted that there was any scientific validity to these claims.

The Frenchman, who, like the others, had been conducting research on drugs for a very long time, replied that cannabis was “simply regarded as bad” for people in all sorts of ways, and that it was universally regarded as a stepping-stone to the use of other drugs. 5

There are similarities and differences between the responses, and the story about cannabis as a source of violence is now found only in Britain. All these stories are known to be, scientifically speaking, either untrue or highly questionable. The notion that cannabis leads to other drugs – the story encountered everywhere – is really no longer tenable, as many studies, including those conducted by CEDRO, have shown. One of the most detailed calculations ever devoted to the matter, using two large, random samples of the population of Amsterdam, confirms Kandel’s findings that drug use begins with tobacco, followed by alcohol. 6 For the minority of the population in Amsterdam aged twelve and older who go on to use cannabis after alcohol and tobacco, no significant pattern of other drug use can be demonstrated, except in the case of a small minority, and in this minority of cases generally for only a brief period of their time as drug users. 7 I do not want to go into any more detail here regarding the debate on cannabis as a stepping-stone to other drugs, beyond saying that a vast body of epidemiological evidence could be published refuting this theory if there were any desire to see this evidence. The same applies to the propositions that cannabis induces violent behaviour, madness or apathy – maladies that were all, incidentally, attributed to masturbation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 8 And potential adverse effects that are allegedly caused by intensive, frequent patterns of consumption (such as lung cancer) are almost always discussed in relation to all patterns of consumption. 9 Hypotheses about physical or psychological consequences may perhaps apply to a small minority of highly specific cannabis users, but that applies to all propositions, however outlandish: such associations can always be found if one starts from biased presuppositions, or if one uses a carefully selected sample of people, such as those who use cannabis extremely frequently, or the inmates of psychiatric hospitals and prisons. For the vast majority of cannabis users, measured in random samples, these hypotheses are invalid. If the dominant political forces had adopted a different attitude to cannabis consumption, more money might have been available for research – and the publication of research – which demonstrate this invalidity. (We should not, however, overestimate the effect this might have had.10)

Clearly, there is something odd about the ban on cannabis. The changing stories that are evoked to prolong it again and again are untenable. But what is actually going on? The second British researcher I consulted added that leaving aside the many different problems related to cannabis, the ban also represents a moral standard imposed in society’s name. It conveys a message to the population that using cannabis is not right. I’m sure that is true. It conveys that message. But does anyone listen to it? Some do, no doubt. But the Netherlands, Portugal and Greece, countries with substantially fewer users than Britain, receive the same message. Britain has more cannabis users than any other country in Europe aside from the Czech Republic. But the authorities in the countries with far lower levels of use also think that this message should be conveyed. This is regardless of the fact that after almost a century of cannabis use, no one knows whether this message is listened to or has the desired effect. Nor are there – and this is very revealing – any scientific analyses or serious attempts to explain the large discrepancies in cannabis use that exist not only within Europe but even within individual countries.

The lowest level of cannabis use in Europe, about 7% of the population of Portugal, and the highest, 30% in the UK, differ by a factor of four. 11 No one knows why this is the case. No one knows the determinants of these consumption figures, or whether they can be influenced – and if so by what. In the case of an ordinary problem, puzzles like this would be at the top of the list of research questions, but this does not apply to cannabis consumption. No one wants to know why the Portuguese smoke so little dope and the British smoke so much of it. No one wants to know why the Dutch occupy an intermediate position, between the Portuguese and the British, in spite of over thirty years of cannabis shops and free access to hashish and marijuana. In the Netherlands, for many years, anyone aged 16 and over could buy marijuana. The age limit was later raised to 18. People aged over 18 can still buy as much marijuana as they want. In other words, a situation that the British say, and the French and the Swedes say, would spell disaster, or at least lead to very high consumption figures, simply doesn’t!

No one wants to know why not. People do not want to know, because it is not considered relevant. In the culture of the ban on cannabis, there is no platform for scientific argument. The political theatre of this ban is not produced for a critical public. 12

A matter of faith

In 17th-century Italy, the Catholic faith was embarrassed by Galileo Galilei’s calculations of the motions of the sun and the moon, which made him guilty of a mortal sin. No one wanted to see such calculations. Galileo survived only because he and the Pope were old acquaintances. I often refer to Galileo's fate to illustrate the importance of faith in drug policy, but not to refer to faith in general. The 17th-century Church was not opposed to scientific advances; only when such advances seemed to be undermining the basis of religious faith did science become a precarious business.

Galileo was not a heretic because he practised science, but because his undesirable science threatened one of the central dogmas of the religious authorities of the day, and the secular authorities deriving from them – namely, the dogma that the bible was based in its entirety on the word of God, and hence was wholly true. If that central dogma were to be undermined by calculations conflicting with the biblical text, this would undermine not only the Christian faith, but the very institution of the Church! And without the Church, the people could not attain salvation! It may be added that no one knew in those days whether a belief in the infallibility of the bible was the core value underlying adherence to the Catholic Church. Would people really have left the Church if they had realized that Galileo’s cosmology was altogether sounder than that of the bible and Rome? Would people tend to use cannabis more than now if its use were depicted in the media as posing virtually no risk to the vast majority of users and if it did not incur the marginalization that inevitably accompanies its illegality? We cannot answer these questions with certainty, but on the basis of many years of experience with legal access to cannabis in the Netherlands I tend to think not, on both counts. People who use cannabis learn to do so from other users, who set a certain example that they wish to follow. The existence of people outside their own circle who condemn cannabis and insist on retaining the ban on it may make a little difference, but not much. In Sweden, where the ban is strictly enforced and where children are told enormously exaggerated nonsense about cannabis at primary school, twice as many people use cannabis as in Portugal, where this practice does not exist and users are not even criminalized. In the Netherlands, where adults can purchase as much cannabis as they want perfectly legally, people living in rural areas use as little as in Sweden, while city folk use just as much as in Britain, even though the same message is propagated in all part of the Netherlands. In San Francisco, far more people, including cannabis users, consume cocaine than in Amsterdam, and at least twice as many people smoke dope in San Francisco as in Amsterdam. This is in spite of the low prices in Amsterdam, 13 where customers can buy very small quantities in easily accessible shops with a wide assortment of wares, a distribution network that does not exist in San Francisco.14

Cannabis is banned everywhere, notwithstanding differences in the degree to which the ban is enforced. Nowhere has it been demonstrated, however, that this ban has any impact on the drug’s use. In large countries such as Australia or the United States, or Britain or France, which have harsh enforcement regimes, large sections of the population ignore the ban altogether. In the major cities of North America, there are few people who have never tried cannabis. But far fewer people use it on a weekly basis, let alone every day. That people do not become attached to it appears to be not because it is banned, but because they do not particularly like it or because it is linked to a limited number of social contexts. The social and physical context that determines whether people use cannabis, and if so how much, is described in detail in the comparative study on patterns of cannabis use that we carried out in Amsterdam, Bremen and San Francisco.15

The culture of the ban on cannabis censures any argument demonstrating the irrelevancy of the policy regime as a deviant and undesirable mode of reasoning, in much the same way that the culture of the infallibility of the bible – that is, of the Church – pronounced Galileo a heretic. Precisely where Galileo excelled, in observations of celestial bodies and calculations showing their motions to be strangely inconsistent with Holy Scripture, was where his reasoning was deemed to pose the greatest danger to the power of the Church. The idea that this argument regarding the risk posed to the Church might be erroneous was unthinkable! People were certain that if the Church allowed Galileo to study and teach without restriction, the institution of the Church, and therefore the salvation of human beings, would be harmed. The culture of the ban on cannabis is upheld with a similar dogmatic certainty. It is believed that if the state were to cease enforcing the ban, the physical and mental health of the population (or of those who are “weak”) would be harmed.

All this means that the culture of the ban on cannabis is not susceptible to observations or data proving the ban to be incompatible with human rights, dangerous, destructive, impossible to enforce, inhumane, expensive, crime-inducing, and dysfunctional – even in its own terms. The ban was a blunder conceived in Geneva in or around 1924. Since then, an entire culture has grown up around it, and acquired near-saintly status. Let me try to define it more precisely. The culture of the ban on cannabis represents a way of thinking about the value of human beings, namely of the individual human being as the centre of things, and the highest good that the state must protect. The culture of the ban on cannabis can therefore be said to reflect a fossilized and misunderstood version of humanism. Misunderstood, because within the culture of the ban, politicians pursue the repressive and paternalist aspiration to protect citizens from “calamity.” The state, here, is the secular successor to the Church as the protector of our spiritual and physical well-being. And in fact it does not really place the individual human being at the centre, but only a pale shadow of the individual. Within this culture, human beings are seen as weak creatures in need of protection, creatures who would be lost if the ban on cannabis were withdrawn.

The ban on cannabis has acquired sacred significance as a protective and purgative instrument, and is hence unassailable. So most politicians continue to support it and have nothing to gain from questioning it. Raising the matter of the follies and atrocities that are committed in the name of the ban is counterproductive. Proclaiming that the ban on cannabis cannot, and does not, protect citizens is rather like proclaiming in seventeenth-century Rome that the Church is a clown and that people are quite mature enough to take care of their own spiritual welfare.16

As long as the culture of the ban on cannabis is the living symbol of the state’s protection of its citizens, not a single argument is of the slightest relevance. The culture of the ban is protected from information, covered with a smooth conceptual armour that easily deflects or distorts reasoned argument. So it is my contention that the ban exists not for any tenable reason, but because of its sacred significance.17


The prohibition of cannabis, an auto-da-fé

I should like to close with a few observations on the lack of necessity to furnish religious rules with any rational grounds. An article on the significance of “kosher” posted to an American website called “Judaism 101” quotes a rabbi as saying that there is no reason whatsoever for the culture of kosher food aside from the fact that the rules are mentioned in the Old Testament, the Jewish bible. Another rabbi also observes that there are no reasons for them aside from the requirement to obey the divine rules: “The ability to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil, pure and defiled, the sacred and the profane, is very important in Judaism. Imposing rules on what you can and cannot eat ingrains that kind of self-control, requiring us to learn to control even our most basic, primal instincts.”

In other words, there is a certain intrinsic value in the mere prescription and protection of rules. If the ban’s provenance is, or is believed to be, good, no other reason is needed to corroborate this value. In a religious (or ideological) world view, obeying and protecting such rules is indicative of true faith, and is thus required. The substance and consequences of the rule cannot be questioned, since this would be to subject the faith itself to reason, and hence to doubt. Doubt means the end of faith.

In the culture of the ban on cannabis, its enforcement is a sign of faith in both the importance and the weakness of modern human beings, together with a belief in the capacity of the strong state to protect weak human beings. And this makes the ban unassailable.

The culture of the ban on cannabis, of eating kosher, of constantly affirming the infallibility of the bible, are all examples of imaginary rules based on faith, preserved by a long line of institutions and prelates. That would not matter all that much, were it not that the culture of the ban on cannabis, like any hunt for heretics, is attended by degrading injustice and the continuation of magical, infantile, contradictory and in some cases utterly insane practices. No price is too high for enforcing a ban once a culture has invested it with sacred value.


  • I should like to express my sincere gratitude to Job Arnold, Jan van der Tas and Eric van Ree for their comments on earlier versions of this text. Translation by Beverley Jackson.
  1. "From Killer Weed to Drop-out Drug: The Changing Ideology of Marihuana," Contemporary Crises 7 (1983):13-38.
  2. Jojada Verrips,1987:”Slachtoffers van het geloof,drie gevallen van doodslag in Calvinistische kring.” Sociologisch Tijdschrift,14-3, p. 357-406.
  3. The Great Marijuana Arrest Crusade: Racial Bias and The Policing of Marijuana in New York City, 1997 - 2006 by Harry G. Levine and Deborah P. Small. Report forthcoming in 2008 from: Break The Chains, New York City, and The Sociology Department, Queens College, City University of New York.
  4. See also his article The War on Treyf, in which he parodies the police by describing an imaginary coup perpetrated by orthodox Jews, in which everyone who fails to eat kosher food or who keeps non kosher food in their home is arrested. This Talibanesque comedy is obviously intended as a reference to the tragedy of cannabis arrests.
  5. For a discussion of the state’s influence on what is good for us, see Craig Reinarman 2007: Policing Pleasure, Food, Drugs and the Politics of Ingestion. Gastronomica, Summer 2007
  6. Kandel DB. Stages in adolescent involvement in drug use. Science. 1975;190:912-914.
    Kandel DB. Convergence in prospective longitudinal surveys of drug use in normal populations. In: Kandel DB, ed. Longitudinal Research on Drug Use: Empirical Findings and Methodological Issues. Washington: Hemisphere Publishing; 1978:3-38. Zie ook Golub A., and Johnson, B.D. 2001: "Variation in youthful risk of progression from alcohol/tobacco to marijuana and hard drugs across generations” Am Jrnl of Publ Health, 91(2), pp 225-232.
  7. We operationalized and quantified the ‘stepping-stone hypothesis’ in eight different ways, after which we searched to see if we could find the data to match each operationalization. Cohen, Peter, & Arjan Sas (1997), Cannabis use, a stepping stone to other drugs? The case of Amsterdam. In: Lorenz Böllinger (1997), Cannabis Science / Cannabis Wissenschaft. From prohibition to human right / Von der Prohibition zum Recht auf Genuß. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Eurpaïscher Verlag der Wissenschaften. pp. 49-82.
  8. The broadcasting company ARTE produced an astonishing TV documentary on the cultural history of masturbation, which can be viewed at,CmC=1741276.html.
  9. For a definition and discussion of the concept “pattern of consumption,” see ref. 14.
  10. A Canadian Senate Commission in which all parties were represented published a report on the ban on cannabis in 2002 that contains a comprehensive and damning analysis of all the “reasons” supposedly underlying the ban. ‘Report of the Senate Commission on illegal drugs’, September 2002. See
    The report, which was attacked ferociously by the police unions and the United States, was followed by a tightening-up of the ban on cannabis in Canada in 2006.
  11. EMCDDA 2006;
  12. The public, at the mercy of largely inconsistent and misleading information provided by highly prejudiced “experts” who pop up in the media as a series of alternating characters in a sophisticated puppet-show, is incapable of ordering the chaotic flow of information.
  13. Imported marijuana costs €4 a gram, while home-grown “Nederwiet” costs €7. See Trimbos Institute 2007: THC concentraties in wiet, nederwiet en hasj in Nederlandse coffeeshops (2006-2007).
    In San Francisco it cannot easily be purchased per gram. Best quality is often sold in ounces (28.4 gram) which may  set you back about $400. Nowadays one eighth of an ounce of quality marijuana can be bought as well (about 3.5 gram). Smaller quantities are very hard to get, other than in dubious street trade from dealers who sell poor quality marijuana for about $10 a gram. (Chris Conrad and Craig Reinarman, various personal communications, Dec. 2007)
  14. Peter D.A. Cohen, Hendrien L. Kaal (2001), The irrelevance of drug policy. Patterns and careers of experienced cannabis use in the populations of Amsterdam, San Francisco and Bremen. Amsterdam, CEDRO.
    See also Reinarman, Craig, Peter D.A. Cohen, and Hendrien L. Kaal (2004), The Limited Relevance of Drug Policy: Cannabis in Amsterdam and in San Francisco. American Journal of Public Health, 2004; 94:836–842.
  15. “In both cities, users report a clear selectivity in the times,locations and situations they found suitable for cannabis use. This selectivity was patterened, organized mostly to prevent cannabis use from interfering with normall social functioning” Craig Reinarman and Peter Cohen: ”Lineaments of cannabis culture: rules regulating use in Amsterdam and San Francisco” Contemporary Justice Review Vol 10 No 4, Dec 2007, pp 407-424
  16. That is precisely what Calvin and Luther said, in response to which they were opposed tooth and nail, kept out of Rome and condemned by the Catholic Church.
  17. A recent analysis by Acevedo, based on Foucault, defines the construction and recurrent reconstruction of the ban on cannabis in terms of a “technology of governance.” This thesis is not at odds with the one advanced here, but does not help to explain why a ban on cannabis should have served as a vehicle for such a technology. Beatriz Acevedo, 2007: “Creating the cannabis user. A post-structuralist analysis of the reclassification of cannabis in the United Kingdom 2004-2205.” IJDP 18(2007) 177-186.